Image removed: a still from "This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers," 1973. (Removed because a reader observed that it perpetuates the very negative stereotypes which I had intended for this post to call into question. My apologies for causing hurt or offense.)
Today we remember a long-ago feast of gratitude. Perhaps that feast was held by Pilgrims along with their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped the colonists survive the hardships of a brutal winter marked by sickness and loss (which had come after a difficult transatlantic crossing). Now there was a good harvest and sense of plenitude. (See Thanksgiving History | Plimoth Plantation.) That's more or less how the story unfolds on the Peanuts "This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers" special, and if Charles Schulz illustrated it, it must be true, right? (Hint: depends on who you ask.)
As a Jew I've always felt some identification with the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution and set off for a land where they could worship as they chose in peace. The same was true of both of my sets of grandparents during the 20th century. For many Eastern European Jews America was the Goldene Medina, the golden land of opportunity where all were equal and where religious freedom was guaranteed. In America anyone could get ahead if only they were willing to work hard. Something in me will always resonate with this vision of the United States as a place of equality and freedom.
Of course, the Pilgrims' arrival here was the beginning of an era of European colonization which left this land's Native inhabitants disenfranchised. That complicates the religious freedom narrative a bit. European religious freedom and expansion came at a high cost. Between European notions of land ownership and that era's triumphalist sensibilities -- not to mention "manifest destiny," the establishments of Indian reservations, and the import of smallpox and other European diseases -- the colonists set in motion a paradigm shift which would badly damage the fabric of Native life.
The tale of the First Thanksgiving may be biased mythologizing. And the fantasy of an America entirely free from prejudice, where anyone could "bootstrap" their way to prosperity, turns out to be not exactly the whole truth either. Both that classic Jewish immigrant story, and the Thanksgiving story as I learned it when I was a kid, are sanitized and rosy-hued. Intellectually I know that there is more to both of those realities than the neat narratives can explain. And yet there's something about these stories which is still compelling for me, even though I know they're not the whole truth.
What do these tales do for us? What purpose do they serve in our psychospiritual lives? I think the persistence of these stories shows us something about how we want to see ourselves and our nation. I think both stories encode a yearning for a home where harvests are plentiful, gratitude is free-flowing, and opportunities abound. They can teach us something real and true -- not about the way things were or are, necessarily, but about the way we wish things were.
In Jewish tradition we say that Shabbat offers us a taste of the world to come. When we tell these old stories about America as a haven of perfect equality and freedom, about the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down in harmony, about a place of opportunity where a Jew can aspire even to the highest office in the land, I think we're seeking that same kind of taste of what it would be like for our nation to live up to our holiest ideals. Maybe today we celebrate the abundance, freedom, and thankfulness which characterize the America of our deepest hopes.
Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate.